Monday, November 23, 2015

Alla prima, or premier coup?

Terminology in painting has been confusing to many--me included. Learning to paint for me meant studying various sources diligently to learn various ways to manipulate oil paint. At first, as I suppose it is for most, painting for my teenage self meant producing a picture directly, in one go, wet-into-wet. For an untutored beginner it made sense and was the only way I could imagine to do it anyway. Direct painting continues to be one of the most important ways of picture-making, in contrast with indirect painting, which rely on glazing in multiple layers.

The plein air movement, painting outdoors, has gained momentum in recent years and is almost always direct painting. Many masters of the medium painted directly. Two particular favorites of mine, Hals and Velazquez were direct painters who made their brushwork sing. I've posted a couple of examples below.

I learned the term "alla prima" ("first attempt" in Italian) to mean doing a painting in one session, one go. So it is a direct method, meaning using paint without glazing, seems to me. Direct painting and "alla prima" aren't quite synonymous, though That is, direct painting can take place over more than one session, which is what Velazquez seems to have done, and so did Hals. On the other hand, there are portraits by Hals that are said to have been painted all in one go, wet-into-wet, which is what "alla prima" meant to me.
Juan Pareja by Velazquez, 1650
One particularly good book about Velazquez methods, by the way, is "Velazquez. The Technique of Genius" by Brown and Garrido (Yale University Press).

So direct painting in several sessions may or may not be painting into a wet layer since drying depends on the pigment, vehicle, and any medium being used as well as local conditions. And alla prima implies only one session of work. Nevertheless, the distinction is clear, I think.

Then there are other terms that can be confusing and interrelate with direct painting, wet-into-wet painting, and alla prima painting. The phrase "premier coup," has been said by many to mean a single session of painting (the term is French, and also means first attempt). One notable painter of the past, John Sargent, was said to hover with his brush at arm's length then rush the easel and place a stroke of paint just so, leaving it alone thereafter, which certainly sounds as if he did what I think the term ought to mean. He put down a stroke of paint only after considerable thought, placed it precisely, and generally left it alone, especially in the final stage of a portrait. Of course, that description belies Sargent's well-known penchant for scraping and repainting, sometimes dozens of times on the same picture. So the question arises, is premier coup really a synonym for alla prima? They are defined as the same thing when translated to English.
Jasper Schade by Franz Hals 1645

Premier coup ought to mean the same thing that alla prima does, but to me it's the first touch of the brush. If you see it that way, then premier coup means the "put down a stroke and leave it alone" school of painting, in contrast to working one color into another (wet-in-wet) on the painting surface, which might lead to muddiness or worse.

Also confusing is that direct painting could be alla prima or not and alla prima might be premier coup or not. The idea that wet-into-wet is somehow synonymous with any of the above, isn't strictly true, either. The centuries-old technique of painting into a lubricating medium applied to the support, underdrawn or underpainted, or what Monet called "painting into the soup," is by definition wet-into-wet. That technique is actually glazing, adding more or less transparent layers over an often contrasting underpainting that has been allowed to dry thoroughly.

So to sum up for my own purposes, I use the terms mentioned as follows:
  • direct painting - painting without glazing, sometimes in more than one session
  • alla prima - painting in a single session, which requires wet-in-wet techniques
  • premier coup - putting down one brush stroke and then leaving it alone 
  • wet-in-wet - application of wet paint to a wet underlayer, whether paint or medium
Without a clear understanding of terminology, seems to me, we're all at sea.

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Here are a couple of my own small works. Each of these was painted alla prima using a premier coup technique. That's my story and I'm stickin' to it.
"Jimmy B" (study) 2015, 8x10

"Hockney" 2015, 6x8


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